Should Sheffield have an official red light district?

Calls have been made for an official red light district to be declared in Sheffield – in the hope it will make the sex industry safer and take it off the city’s main streets.

By Molly Williams
Tuesday, 04 June, 2019, 12:49
Some people have called for an official red light district in Sheffield

The sex industry, often referred to as ‘the oldest trade in the world’, is mostly hidden in Sheffield in the grey areas of the law or behind strict licensing rules. 

But some have said unlicensed operators are enabling criminal activity including exploitation and trafficking.

Businessman David Slater, managing director of Attercliffe-based property firm Spaces Sheffield,  said: “The root cause of prostitution is the men that use them, if they didn’t there wouldn’t be any prostitutes. But you aren’t ever going to stop men having those kinds of urges and willing to pay for it. You’re never going to get rid of it. So my view is you manage it.”

Under current UK law, it is legal to be a prostitute privately, behind closed doors, but illegal to run a brothel, pimp someone out or be a street prostitute, meaning much activity goes under the radar.

Mr Slater estimates there are around a dozen illegal brothels in Attercliffe alone.

“If you stood at the Royal Bank of Scotland near the graveyard and did a 360-degree streetview you’d probably be able to see six brothels at least.”

He is one of a number of people calling for the decriminalisation of sex work and an official red light district, kept out of direct view.

“This is a £1 billion boulevard in Attercliffe. The minute you come off that junction at Meadowhall you should be thinking ‘Wow, Sheffield’ and as you come through the last thing that we ought to be doing as a city is advertising sex and prostitution.

“Yes, it’s going to be there but not in your face.”

There are only two licensed sexual entertainment venues in Sheffield – La Chambre swingers club, on Attercliffe Road, and Spearmint Rhino strip club, on Brown Street in the city centre.

Famously, in Attercliffe there is also City Sauna which featured in the Channel 4 series A Very British Brothel, prompting a warning from South Yorkshire Police which emphasised that such places are against the law.

But a petition launched recently in Sheffield fought to decriminalise sex work, saying it would make the industry safer. 

Jenni Wright, who started the petition, said: “Every day, sex workers have to put themselves in danger to avoid a criminal record. They can’t work together to keep each other safe, they can’t look for a safe working environment in a parlour, they can’t rely on the authorities for protection.

“Most sex workers are mothers supporting their families, struggling to make ends meet. Let’s help not hurt them.”

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Spearmint Rhino has been fighting to stay open after a secretly filmed video, apparently showing strippers breaching their licence by touching customers sexually, threatened to shut them down.

It comes after continuous campaigns by groups including the Women’s Equality Party and Zero Option to shut them and other sexual entertainment venues down – saying it they were exploitative and offensive.

During Spearmint Rhino’s campaign to stay open a number of strippers said they were one of the safest and friendliest clubs in the country, partly as a result of being transparent, legal and licensed. They also said closing down could force workers into more unsafe work.

Heather Watson, who works as a stripper at Spearmint Rhino, said: “It does make it safer to be licensed because we have to answer to someone.

“I know people do independent stripping, for example, which is really dangerous because you are going to a strangers’ house, you don’t know what’s going to happen, you might be working out of pubs, you might not get paid, there’s a risk of violence, you might get filmed without your consent but we have security, CCTV and a sense of community and solidarity.”

Jordan Dean, who is supporting Spearmint Rhino and has a friend and a relative who worked in the club, said: “I think having a licensed establishment makes it safer. There’s a lot of illegal brothels and things like that in Sheffield that aren’t as safe and secure. There’s always going to be sex work but to have licensing on it is a good thing.”

Mr Slater suggested Bernard Road – near the waste incinerator – as the ideal place for a red light district as it would not affect residents or planned developments. However, asking venues to move would be a challenge.

Mr Slater said: “If the brothels go, something better will come in its place.

“But there aren’t any public sector officials doing anything about it and many people who live around here aren’t really bothered.”

Coun Jack Scott, a former Sheffield Council cabinet member, said: “I would always like the council to have more powers in general on a whole range of things.

“I think it’s really important to talk to people working in this industry about what kind of support or extra help or protection they would want to see before we jump to any conclusions.

“By definition it is quite hidden and the bits that are most hidden are probably the bits that are most concerning. So we do rely on people to tell us when those things are happening because they have far more eyes on the ground and intelligence in that way than we could ever try to muster.”

Late last year South Yorkshire Police said existing sex establishments in Attercliffe ‘haven’t presented the levels of concern and risk that may have been perceived by the public’.

Pre-emptively referring to the neighbourhood as a red light district, it argued, could create a problem that doesn’t exist. Sergeant Lee Kaighin, of the Darnall and Tinsley problem-orientated policing team, said ‘there is no red light area in Sheffield’.